In organization theory, mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.
Mutual aid is arguably as ancient as human culture: an intrinsic part of the small, communal societies universal to humanity's ancient past. From the dawn of humanity, until far beyond the invention of agriculture, humans were foragers, exchanging labor and resources for the benefit of groups and individuals alike.
As an intellectual abstraction, mutual aid was developed and advanced by mutualism or labor insurance systems and thus trade unions, and has also been used in cooperatives and other civil society movements.
Typically, mutual-aid groups will be free to join and participate in, and all activities will be voluntary. They are often structured as non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, non-profit organizations, with members controlling all resources and no external financial or professional support. They are member-led and member-organized. They are egalitarian in nature and designed to support participatory democracy, equality of member status and power shared leadership and cooperative decision-making. Members' external societal status is considered irrelevant inside the group: status in the group is conferred by participation.
Based on Peter Kropotkin's theories on mutual aid, those small groups are also discussed as a counter model to the historic concept of an autonomous individual. Those discussions emphasize an open model of voluntary cooperation in mutual-aid groups as opposed to induced cooperation. Therefore, they raise questions regarding the tension of the individual's adaption and self-determination. Overcoming this tension requires an insight in the life perspective of others, a radical openness to all situations possible and a high awareness of and confidence in the self is necessary.
Examples of mutual-aid organizations include unions, the Friendly Societies that were common throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medieval craft guilds, the American "fraternity societies" that existed during the Great Depression providing their members with health and life insurance and funeral benefits, and the English "workers clubs" of the 1930s that also provided health insurance.
Mutual aid is also a cornerstone of the self-help movement, in which the helper/helpee principle is important: the idea is that the more a person helps, the more they are helped, and that those who help most are helped most. Mutual aid practices and principles are used in alcoholism and drug rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS support, among adult survivors of sexual abuse, parents of developmentally disabled children, and mentally ill older adults.